Today, Joe brought my attention to a strange quirk of the English language: we use “whose” for inanimate objects. It sounds so weird when you use the phrase like, “I placed the iPhone whose screen is broken in the bin,” but it’s technically grammatically correct.

Whose for Inanimate Objects

“Whose” sounds most natural when it’s used for animate objects, like people and animals, and other things that breathe and possess the life force.

Apparently there are folks out there who share the opinion that “whose” for inanimate objects shouldn’t be used because it sounds weird.

But think about it: what else are we going to use?

Whose Has ALWAYS Been Used for Inanimate Objects

We’ve talked about the fact that the English language is always changing and evolving, but this particular piece of usage hasn’t evolved since the fourteenth century.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the eighteenth century was when grammar nitpickers started to cast aspersions on “whose” and inanimate objects, which basically means that we as casual linguists will never be content with what we have.

“Whose” vs. “Of Which”

So what do we do to resolve this apparent tension? Some have suggested replacing “whose” with the even less user-friendly “of which”. That might work in some cases, but for the most part, it just sounds stilted and awkward and unnecessarily formal. Compare these two sentences:

That table, whose legs are uneven, has been in my family for decades.

That table, the legs of which are uneven, has been in my family for decades.

Then again, you could always take my favorite approach to grammatical conundrums, and rewrite the sentence completely to avoid the issue entirely:

That table with the uneven legs has been in my family for decades.

No more problems of inanimateness! Any of the three techniques above are technically correct, though. Just be sure your language flows smoothly, no matter which way you approach the dilemma. And, as a PSA, if you choose to go with “whose”, make sure you’re not using “who’s”, which is the contracted form of “who is” and completely wrong for this purpose.

Which do you think sounds better, “whose” or “who’s”? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Let’s cement this rule into our writing by composing ten sentences using “whose” for inanimate objects. When you’ve finished your ten sentences, post them in the comments section!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.